The Objectivist movement: a repudiation

It’s probably obvious to anyone who’s Googled me that I have a more-than-passing interest in the ideas of Ayn Rand. If you’ve noticed that much, you’ve probably noticed that I take Rand seriously, am highly influenced by her, and agree with a lot of things she said. I don’t any longer know whether my agreements with Rand qualify me as an “Objectivist,” but they’re substantial enough to be unusual among academic philosophers.

In my view, Rand’s best ideas are to be found in what she wrote about epistemology and in the more abstract parts of her work on moral psychology, ethics, and aesthetics. Those parts of Rand strike me as deeper and more insightful than most of what I’ve encountered in analytic philosophy. But there are plenty of things in Rand and in her followers that strike me as weak and ill-argued. Apart from some suggestive remarks on causality and free will, I don’t think that Objectivism has a well-developed metaphysics, and ironically–despite its widespread notoriety–Objectivism’s political philosophy is to my mind, its weakest and least developed feature. In any case, the closer to the “ground” one gets–that is, to concrete, “applied” issues in ethics, politics, and aesthetics–the more problematic I think Rand’s views become. Frankly, some of her political views seem to me to border on insanity, and many of her aesthetic views are idiosyncratic and ill-argued, to say the least.

Of course, the same might be said of Nietzsche, Sartre, or Wittgenstein–which has never deterred philosophers from expressing enthusiasm for their work. Academic philosophers suffer from a rather strange double standard in this respect when it comes to Rand. People who haven’t read Rand feel free to dismiss her on the basis of vague rumors about what they think she said–and yet no one could legitimately dismiss Nietzsche, Sartre, or Wittgenstein even by offering up direct quotations of some of the utterly ridiculous things they actually said. It’s perfectly possible, after all, for a philosopher to have astute or even brilliant things to say in one domain, and to offer up rubbish in another. In fact, it happens all the time. Anyway, that–the brilliant/rubbish interpretation–happens to be my view of Rand. (I like Rand’s novels, but also have mixed feelings about them, and ultimately end up agreeing, in different ways, with both their most fervent enthusiasts and their most vehement critics.)

On the whole, I would dispute the idea that Rand left us a worked-out “system,” or that her followers have produced one. As I see it, what she left is a series of astute, under-appreciated, and ill-understood philosophical observations awaiting further development by competent philosophers. On this view, it’s premature to describe “Objectivism” as either true or false, since more of “it” exists in potentia than in actuality. (Ironically, Objectivism currently lacks the resources to spell out the latter insight, since it has no worked-out account of the metaphysics of potentiality and actuality.)

Having said that, my main purpose in writing this post is less to clarify my philosophical views on Objectivism than to issue a public repudiation of the Objectivist movement. A “public repudiation” might well sound self-serving or narcissistic to some ears, as though I regarded what I said in a blog post as making some major difference to the prospects of the movement. Since I know that it won’t, that isn’t my aim. Frankly, I’m not all that concerned about or interested in the “prospects of the Objectivist movement.” What I’m concerned about, given my evident interest in Rand, is the possibility of my being associated with it.

Depending on how you count them, the Objectivist movement has three or four institutional vehicles–the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), the Anthem Foundation, the Ayn Rand Society (ARS), and The Atlas Society (TAS) (previously the Institute for Objectivist Studies, then The Objectivist Center). Carrie-Ann Biondi and I briefly ran something we called the Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS), which we conceived of as a successor to the original IOS (founded in 1990). Our IOS lasted seven or eight months, from March until October 2013. I’ve always kept my distance from ARI and Anthem, but was a dues-paying member of ARS from the early 1990s until 2012, and had an on-again, off-again relationship with TAS, most actively between 1991-1994, and then for one-year stints in 1997 and parts of 2012-2013. (The latter relationship is now permanently “off.”)

I won’t bother to rehearse all of the details involving the similarities, differences, and histories of the four institutions. Suffice it to say that I regard all of them as morally corrupt, and regard the very idea of an “Objectivist movement” as a pointless (and pernicious) waste of time. I’ve expressed my opposition to the idea of an Objectivist movement here. My objections to each of the four Objectivist institutions are scattered on websites across the Internet. I may bring them together some day and house them in one place, but the basic objection can be put in a few sentences: in my experience, none of the four Objectivist institutions I’ve mentioned is committed to an honest conception of intellectual inquiry. Some of them wear more impressive academic garb than others, but all of them operate within a “movement” mentality that relies on heavy doses of group-think, dogmatism, and on occasion, all-out intellectual dishonesty. A judicious person would think long and hard before accepting an invitation from any of them. Ultimately, I don’t think a judicious person would accept such an invitation at all.

This isn’t the place to make a full case against the Objectivist movement. Not having done so, I can’t claim to have convinced you of my belief in its problematic features. Having distanced myself from it, all I can do here is to underscore the need for caution–even outright suspicion–in dealing with it. As most people already know, the Objectivist movement has a bad reputation. I would just add that most of that reputation is well- earned and well-justified. My advice: do some assiduous research before you deal with it, and you’ll come to the same conclusion on your own. (And, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, if you’re already in the movement, get out while you can.) Meanwhile, caveat emptor. Let the would-be buyer beware.

4 thoughts on “The Objectivist movement: a repudiation

  1. Hi Irfan, Your interesting argument didn’t mention Chris Sciabarra’s ‘Journal of Ayn Rand Studies’ which surprised me as this is both non-dogmatic and the type of forum in which the work might be done that you suggest needs to be done. Have you a view on it?

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    • Hi Ron–

      I didn’t mention JARS only because the post was mostly meant to be a criticism of the movement, and JARS is not a movement-oriented journal. I mostly named names in order to damn, not to praise. (With exceptions made for Carrie-Ann, of course.)

      But I’m a fan of JARS, agree with your characterization of it, and count myself as a friend of all four of its editors. I’ve never published there myself, but would like to at some point.

      Irfan

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  2. Hi Irfan, I also admire Rand and regard her dismissal (and the dismissal of those who take her seriously) in academia to say much about what is wrong with academia. I admired Chris’s book on Rand enormously and have written twice for JARS, both pieces attempted to combine respect with critique. I found Chris and his reviewers to be constructive and open, (something I didn’t expect given the reputation of Randians); I am sure that you would find the same. Hope to see you (both) next year in St Louis, Ron

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  3. Pingback: The case against the Objectivist Movement redux: David Harriman on the shoals of integrity | Policy of Truth

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